No matter what condition the American economy is in, the people of the United States simply love big things. There may be a select group of folks who genuinely dislike large items, but a quick walk down a convenience store’s “grocery” isle would make it appear that they are in a minority. Big pastries, big gulps, big cookies and even bigger sandwiches can all be found everywhere across America. The love of all things big doesn’t just stop at the food mart either; it can be seen in the automotive industry. America has a love affair with the pickup truck, and there is no greater example than the heavy duty models, especially the 2011 GMC Sierra 2500HD Denali.
Riding on General Motor’s full size body-on-frame chassis, the 2500HD Denali shares its GMT 900 frame with the Silverado, Tahoe, Yukon, Escalade, Avalanche and the H2. Even though the platform debuted in 2006, the GMC Sierra has more history than an elementary school library. The name Sierra may have only been around since 1988, but GMC has been producing a full size pickup for more than 60 years. The Denali trim level designates the cream of the crop, blending the most luxurious interior bits from GM with the most robust mechanicals that can be found outside of a commercial dump truck. In doing this, GMC has created an extremely special piece of engineering that wouldn’t exist anywhere outside of the United States.
Our time spent with a Sierra was done so with a loaded 2500HD Denali Crew Cab 4WD. The base price for the four wheel drive Denali model is $46,800, which gets numerous standard features such as power adjustable leather seats, XM satellite radio, wood trim interior, special chrome exterior trim and a heavy duty, fully boxed frame designed to withstand the test of time. To go along with the hydroformed frame, our tester was equipped with the newly revamped Duramax 6.6 liter diesel V8 that produces a staggering 765 lb-ft of torque. Paired with the Allison built (they made the transmission in the Abrams tank) six speed automatic, this Denali had a total of $8,400 in drivetrain options. That plus a heated steering wheel, 20 inch chrome wheels, the Bose powered audio/navigation system, chrome door steps, a power sunroof and rearview back up camera, our test truck wore a MSRP of $61,470 under its Onyx Black suit.
In all honesty, that is a very large amount of money, even for a “luxury” vehicle. The Denali may have the same beautifully appointed interior as the Buick Enclave, but it’s still a truck that has running gear designed to uproot trees. It is when a driver puts these two observations together that a really important question gets raised: what’s the point of the Denali HD? A base Sierra HD can be made available with the Duramax/Allison combination and or a Denali HD can be purchased cheaper with the 6.0 liter Vortec gasoline engine, so why combine the two? This sort of puts the Denali HD in a unique segment that for some reason, still exists in the United States: the “novelty” truck. This driver would like to make a statement before anyone continues reading: this is not a bad thing.
One a positive note, the Denali HD is able to do some serious hauling. With a manufacture’s estimated maximum conventional towing capacity of 17,000 lbs, the Denali HD can out pull the 2011 Ford Super Duty by a full 1,000 lbs. A massive payload capacity of 4,192 lbs for our 2500HD tester out does a similarly equipped 2500 heavy duty Dodge Ram by over 1,000 lbs. If those ratings are not impressive enough, then the fact that our tester achieved an average fuel mileage rating of 15 mpg in mixed driving should say something about the engineering behind the Duramax diesel engine. This turbocharged, pushrod knuckle dragger produces an impressive 397 horsepower but that rating is easily over shadowed by its torque figure, which has been raised for 2011 to 765 lb-ft. For being so industrial on paper, this engine is remarkably smooth and oddly quiet. The Allison transmission never even hinted at acting up but did behave somewhat “rough”, especially when not a full operating temperature. And the heavy duty engine/transmission combination had no trouble of hauling the Denali’s heavy 7,208 lb curb weight. When driving the Denali in a straight line, no one will be able to tell that the truck weighs over three tons as it simply surges up highway on ramps. The weight is noticeable when turning however but no amount of engineering can mask the ‘feel’ of a heavy duty pickup.
What makes a Denali a Denali is the interior, which in our tester is massive. With more rear leg room than most front seats and a center council that will leave no ‘arm-rest-hog’ unhappy, the Sierra’s interior would feel right at home in any high-end luxury vehicle. The audio system (barrowed form other high end GM vehicles) sounds excellent and the iPod integration is absolutely perfect; nothing had to be “relearned” to operate the media player. Sadly, the same story can’t be told for the navigation system, which was not the most user friendly navigation we’ve sampled. Everything was plush and comfortable and it was simply a nice place to sit in. It is sad to know that such a wonderful interior could sometimes get spoiled by the very truck like ride quality. It doesn’t matter how much leather trim there is, a heavy duty truck is still a heavy duty truck.
That heavy duty attitude continues on to the Denali’s exterior. Every observer who passed by our test truck made a positive comment about its looks. Adjectives such as “clean”, “tough”, “aggressive” and even “badass” were used more than once by onlookers. The Denali’s face is pure muscle and the bulging lines and broad angles give the HD a presence all its own. Bathed in Onyx Black, our tester is the kind of truck that Darth Vader would own. The chrome trim isn’t too flashy and creates a juxtaposition that simply just works.
Every vehicle can’t be a complete success story and the Denali HD is no exception. Despite its ability to mask its weight, it can not mask its size. Unless an empty parking lot presented itself, finding a spot proved to be more work than normal. The Denali has trouble not sticking out of a parking space and making sure it is securely in a spot takes time and patience. The steering wheel doesn’t offer much feedback either, but then again how often will a truck like this see sideways duty? And even though an average of 15 mpg is decent for a vehicle of this size, it still isn’t good. The biggest flaw with the Denali however has nothing to do with its mechanicals, but its placement in the automotive industry. This brings us back to our original question, what is the point of the Denali HD?
The 2011 GMC Sierra 2500HD Denali may be a bit of a novelty truck, but it still has a place inside America. It is far too big for practical use, too powerful for its own good and carries luxury features galore with a price tag to match. Even still, the Denali is nothing but enjoyable. This truck actually raised this driver’s spirits so much that it brought back the joy to driving and even conjured up fantasies of cross country adventures. Sure, the same house-pulling capabilities can be found in less expensive Sierra HDs and the same luxury appointments can be found in much more practical GM vehicles but that doesn’t stop the Denali HD from being a success story. It may have a difficult time finding a legitimate reason for existing, but the 2011 GMC Sierra 2500HD Denali does something that not too many new vehicles can do: make a driver smile every time they walk up to turn the key.